Sometimes the worst thing you can do is reach out to people.
Now that I’ve made myself sound like a misanthrope, let me explain.
My camera bag hasn’t moved in a few weeks now. I’ve only opened Lightroom a handful of times in recent memory, and even then only to find photos for eBay auctions. There’s a variety of reasons for this. I’ve found myself with a little less free time since my wife suffered a tendon injury, and of course any sort of medical issue also conjures up our old friend Stress. I’m also a Nikon user, and I felt a little disillusioned with them following some sexist comments by their CEO in lieu of the D850 controversy.
But strip all that away, and it’s hard to deny there’s also a crisis of confidence at play here. The last few times I picked up my camera, I felt intensely dissatisfied with the results. Okay, I hated everything and wanted to delete them off my hard drive. Over time, that progressed into a potent mixture of fear and hatred of the work, and the camera’s set idle ever since.
Yet a few short months ago I found myself confident enough to start a Photo a Day project, and shared my work readily online. You’re probably asking myself the same question I’ve been wrestling with for a while now: What happened?
As with most creative work, there’s never one simple answer. However, I think a lot of the current creative malaise came when I joined the wrong creative community.
One of the great things about the internet is that it nullifies distance as a barrier to finding people who share our interests. I witnessed that evolution first hand growing up in the infancy of the online revolution. While my friends at school moved away from cartoons and video games and into things like sports and having a social life, I couldn’t quite let go of them. There weren’t a lot of sixth graders reading Douglas Adams either, so I felt left out.
Then in junior high school, my dad got us a subscription to an online service called Prodigy, and things started to change. Even at the glacial pace of a 56k modem, which still seemed worlds faster than the 1200 baud I first accessed local BBSes with, I discovered an entire world of fans who shared my interests. There were burgeoning communities for games like Mega Man and Final Fantasy II(later renumbered IV… it’s a long story if you don’t know the games), and I fell in love with them.
It was there, in an online club called FF2*, that I found my first creative community. I started to write my own stories about the world of Final Fantasy II, long before I’d heard the term “fanfic”. There were other writers and fans who just enjoyed reading our work. For the first time, my work escaped the usual notebooks and word processor files, and people who weren’t close friends or immediate families or the odd remarkably patient teacher read what I wrote.
I’ve got a healthy amount of nostalgia for those early days, and I think some aspects of that experience have shaped my writing to this day. Prodigy restricted posts to six of its “pages”, so fanfic chapters tended to be short. That forced, serialized nature led to lots of smaller hooks to keep the audience coming back, and even today I pepper my chapters with section breaks that have some kind of stinger to keep the writer moving forward. I never planned the stories out and just made everything up as I went along, what writers today like to call pantsing.
That fanfic was a milestone in my creative journey. While I’d probably cringe if I looked at it again today(and I do have printouts of a lot of it, sealed in a manilla envelope and hidden within a filing cabinet in our library), it helped to shape me as a writer. What’s more, that community of Final Fantasy fanatics helped me solidify my personal identity as a writer, and gave me the confidence to believe I could one day find an audience for my work.
That happened because I found the group of people, and the right community to belong to.
There’s a proliferation of creative communities online, for everything from writing to photography, illustration to crochet, and I believe the vast majority of them are good. Every one I’ve been a part of has been filled with people who are both passionate about their work and eager to help others achieve their potential. There are exceptions, I’m sure, as there are for anything in life. Still, I doubt a toxic creative environment would last very long. I’m a firm believer that relentless negativity only eats away your creative energy, and any community driven by it would burn itself out in short order.
That said, just because a creative community is good doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. That’s an important distinction. Just as we’re all unique in our creative process and the work we ultimately produce, so too are creative communities unique entities. In fact, when I originally thought to write about this topic, I kept using the term critique groups. However, there are groups that exist only to encourage and offer advice, and actual critique isn’t a part of what they do. At the same time, I’ve seen groups where people will eviscerate each other’s work without a shred of positive feedback left behind.
Finding the right group is key. Think about the example I cited about the Final Fantasy II stories I wrote. To find an audience for my work, I first needed to find other Final Fantasy fans online. However, there were multiple “clubs” back in those days as well. I posted to a few of them, but FF2* was the one I felt comfortable in, and as a result my writing flourished. Above all else, a creative community should be helping you to improve your work.
The first step in finding the right creative community requires a little self analysis. Spend some time thinking about how you prefer to work. Do you have friends or instructors who’ve critiqued your work before? Which proved the most beneficial to you? When you analyze the various techniques and how your work responded to them, you’ll start to get a better idea of what might work for you.
There’s a number of ways to find creative communities online. I’ve found a lot of mine via podcasts or writers and photographers I follow on social media. There’s a wide array of options available to you, but you should give each one a careful look to determine if it’s the best fit. If possible, read some of the posts and see if your personality meshes with the other members. Are they in a similar genre or style?
Once you find a community to join, and I can’t stress this enough, remember that you should always participate and help the other members along the way. I’ve seen some people struggle in groups they should have thrived in, yet all they did was post work or ask questions and never contributed to any other discussions. If you treat a group like it exists only to help with your work, then you’re eventually not going to get that help.
All of this said, I’d also urge you to remember you’re under no obligation to remain a part of a group. If you ever start to lose your motivation or feel inadequate in any way, you should consider leaving. Please note, this doesn’t mean that the people in the group are bad, or that they’ve intentionally done anything wrong! This only means that it’s not a good fit for you.
With the photography group I joined, the creator and members of the group followed a pretty rigid set of guidelines, and the way they shot photos wasn’t at all similar to what I preferred to do. I’ve found I’m more of an instinctual photographer, and trying to follow those guidelines essentially put me at odds with my instincts. Additionally, while I prefer wildlife, zoo and pet photography, the group had a strong focus on portraiture and event photography. It wasn’t a good match from the start, and I should have realized that much sooner.
Now, before you read that last paragraph and think about swearing off the idea of joining a creative community forever, let me tell you about the other groups I’ve found recently. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a few writing communities that have rekindled my creativity in a way I once thought wasn’t possible. I’ve been writing almost nonstop for weeks now, and I’ve found some really amazing people. These communities have helped me find books I’ve devoured, and convinced me to give NaNoWriMo another shot this year. In fact, I think these groups made me think of the old FF2* community. While they’re different in a myriad of ways, they’re fostering my creative drive in a similar way.
I know that I started this off by saying that reaching out to people can sometimes be the worst thing you can do, but it can also be the best. Find the wrong people, and your work might suffer and you could even find yourself pulling away with it. But find the right ones, and it’ll change everything.
I hope you’re able to find them, just like I did.